A sleepy stretch of Mateo Street on a random Monday afternoon seems an unlikely spot to find a bright orange food truck specializing in fresh locally caught seafood and craft kombu beverages.
It’s even more of a surprise when the genial person taking your order at the window is chef Junya Yamasaki. A former darling of London’s avant-garde food scene, Yamasaki has very recently resurfaced Downtown on the corner of Mateo and Seventh streets in the Arts District. The food truck is merely a transitory teaser for larger ambitions to come.
Five years ago, Yamasaki closed Koya, his cult-hit noodle shop in London, after a ragingly successful six-year run. It was the beginning of a profound personal journey. A native of Hyogo, near Osaka, in Japan, the retreat from the restaurant in London propelled him back to Asia for personal exploration.
“Restaurants are exciting, but so busy,” Yamasaki said. “So, I closed the restaurant, and I traveled a lot in China and Japan. It was my recreational time. I needed to think about many things.”
A nascent interest in Buddhist philosophy and meditation also informed a cultural investigation of local culinary traditions.
“I got very interested in Zen,” Yamasaki said. “I wanted to study Zen properly and I attended meditation sessions in many temples. The origins of Japanese cuisine have their roots in Zen, so, philosophically, I got interested in temple cuisine.”
His travels in Japan culminated in an extended stay at an isolated monastery.
“I found a very austere Zen monastery in the mountains, where they had a farm,” said Yamasaki, who stayed at the monastery for three months.
“I was learning Buddhism through a self-sustainable life.”
Yamasaki said these days his meditation is free diving.
“I really got into free diving. It’s all connected,” he said.
It may not seem apparent or obvious as we chat in front of the construction zone that will be the housing for his next restaurant venture, but when Yamasaki says it’s all connected, it’s all connected.
“I got into (free diving) because of my meditation. Many free divers also practice meditation. It’s more of a mental sport. You have to be in tune with your mental and physical state,” he said.
The practice also informed his local culinary research.
“I wanted to learn what kind of fish you have here. How can I learn? The best way to learn is to dive. I want to be connected to the sea. It’s a spiritual connection to the sea,” Yamasaki said.
That interest and inspiration is reflected in the fresh seafood and sashimi served up at the truck’s window. Yamasaki developed relationships with three small-scale commercial fishermen sailing out of Ventura and Oxnard: Capts. Eric Hodge and Bailey Raith and Capt. Evan and Cat Jones of Ventura Fresh Fish. All the fish served at the truck is line-caught fresh.
The freshness, flavor and texture of the fish is further informed by the ancient Japanese practice of ikejune. A method of killing fish in a manner that avoids the release of stress hormones, it enhances and preserves the flavor and texture of the freshly caught fish, while mitigating spoilage.
“You can age the fish to develop the flavor,” Yamasaki said. “You need to have a good technique and understanding to do it.”
Yamasaki taught the method to the commercial fishermen with whom he regularly works.
Arriving in Los Angeles two years ago, Yamasaki and his accomplices quickly staked out their corner of the Arts District as a basecamp. That team includes Giles Clark, Yamasaki’s sous chef from London, who trained at Chez Panisse, Alinea and St. John; as well as Jacob Himmel, a Chicagoan and an accomplished alum of Momofuku in New York. Himmel joined the team last year.
“It’s a huge help having (an) American as a apart of the core team, because all of us really are outsiders,” Clark said.
Clark and Himmel did time in Japan as well. Clark studied with a craft tofu master, while Himmel apprenticed at a natural sake brewery.
The band of outsiders also includes the sommelier Yukiyasu Kaneko, who most recently served as the first non-European sommelier at Noma in Copenhagen. Kaneko specializes in organic wines and sakes. He is in Japan cultivating relationships with small craft sake brewers to supply the restaurant’s inventory. Finally, the apparent wizard behind the curtain, although she was affably available on the sidewalk by the truck, is Kino Kaetsu, who describes herself as the “producer” and team spokeswoman.
Yamasaki generously offered a tour of the former bank building that will house the restaurant and café. Though the buildout is in the early phase, his vision’s outlines are apparent.
“I don’t want to have a big restaurant,” Yamasaki said. “We’ll divide it into two parts. Everything has to be cozy.”
The front section will serve as the more formal restaurant and wine bar, while the back will be a daytime café.
“We like everything to be transparent,” said Yamasaki, as he gestured to the structural elements that will comprise a fully open kitchen and counter area. There is a back patio area as well, which will likely be deployed first, whenever outdoor dining is permitted again, if only to serve patrons of the truck.
The bright orange truck hosts three guys inside — each dressed in navy blue and white horizontally striped shirts and neon watch caps. They are Yamasaki, Clark and Himmel. It’s a formidable lineup for a food truck on Mateo Street. Also know that although the menu is limited, there are no wrong choices.
The menu features three cold dishes, two curries and two sandwich options along with a variety of flavored kombu-infused Aquatic Water.
Daily availability of some items is informed by the amount of fresh-catch inventory. Highlights include the sashimi salad with market greens, radishes, fried almonds and roasted chili oil tossed in a mixed citrus dressing ($16); fish katsu curry “made in the style of bouillabaisse” and served with “50% freshly polished brown rice” and fresh pickles ($18); and the “Ridgeback Prawn” sandwich served banh mi style, albeit on a brioche bun with pate, sambal and pickled carrot, daikon, cucumber and cilantro ($14). The Aquatic Water beverages are infused with seaweed and different flavor combinations including grapefruit, mandarin orange, tomato and apple with green pepper ($8).
Noting the challenges of sustaining the food truck with fresh, locally sourced, line-caught wild fish, Yamasaki also offered a proviso on the impending brick-and-mortar operation.
“It’s not going to be a seafood restaurant. The restaurant will be progressive Japanese, but I don’t want to be strictly Japanese. I’m a very curious person. My philosophical viewpoint is influenced by Zen. I try to be mindfully orientated.”